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Catching Up With Ray Fosse

Catching Up With Ray Fosse

| On 29, Jan 2014

If it wasn’t for bad luck, former Indian Ray Fosse might have had no luck at all.

Fosse was talented and fortunate enough to break into professional baseball at a young age, but the catcher is remembered mostly for bad luck incidents that might have somewhat derailed such a promising career.

“You don’t want people to think that you are snake bitten,” Fosse said.  “Those weren’t just whims…there were reasons that I did get injured.”

Fosse is unquestionably best remembered for getting barreled over at home plate by Cincinnati Reds star Pete Rose in the 1970 All-Star game, but prior to that incident and even afterward, Fosse too often seemed to be a victim of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In June of 1970, the Indians played a doubleheader at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.  Fosse was scheduled to sit out the second game, but played anyways because he was feeling strong and was in the midst of a 16 game hitting streak.  During the bottom half of the fifth inning, as Fosse was throwing the ball back to the pitcher, a fan threw a cherry bomb out of the upper deck that exploded just before it hit the ground.  The shell then landed between Fosse’s feet.

Less than a month later, Fosse was bowled over by Rose in the Midsummer Classic, and then in 1974 even more bad luck struck again when Fosse was a member of the Oakland Athletics.

“It was 1974 and there was an incident in Detroit that had kind of festered,” Fosse remembers.  “(The incident) culminated and came to a head in Detroit.  Reggie Jackson and Billy North had gotten into a fight—it was something that had been going on for most of the first half of the season.  Vida Blue and I stepped in and I ended up shattering six or seven vertebrae in my neck.  It seemed like every time I got in some sort of a scuffle, I came out hurt.  That particular case was probably the worst because I missed 12 weeks and they put me in traction for six, trying to avoid surgery…which I eventually had (anyways).  Six weeks later I ended up playing again and played in the World Series and the postseason.  It was an ugly time…a lot of time on the disabled list…Before Game One of the World Series in Los Angeles there was another fight in the clubhouse…and I ran from it.  I was not going to be a hero in that one.”

Unfortunately, due to the freak injuries, Fosse’s career will always be remembered with the question, “what if?”  Fosse was an All-Star in 1970 on his way to one of the best seasons by an Indians catcher in history when Rose fractured his shoulder and Fosse was never quite the same afterwards.

“The only thing I really think about is if I could have been a 30 homerun per season type of hitter,” Fosse wonders.

He was well on his way.  At the time of the All-Star Game injury, Fosse was batting .312 with 16 homeruns and 45 RBI.  Afterward, Fosse continued to play through the pain, but hit only two homeruns with 15 RBI in the second half of the season.  For the rest of his career, he never hit more than a dozen homeruns in any single season.

It was a shame what happened to Fosse, who was possibly on his way to being one of the Indians all-time great catchers.  He was arguably the Indians best hitter at the time of the injury, in the middle of a Gold Glove season and only 23 years old.  The future seemed extremely bright for the Indians first ever draft pick.

“1965 was the first draft,” Fosse remembers.  “Rick Monday was #1 by Kansas City and I was #7 by Cleveland.  I wanted to play baseball.  I had college scholarship offers, but I wanted to play baseball.  The draft actually ended up costing me money because I had to sign with Cleveland, but I didn’t care.  I wanted to play and I was fortunate to be able to do it.”

Fosse was called up to the Indians for a total of eight games between the 1967-68 seasons, then got a small sample of 37 games in 1969.  His first real chance to play was in the ’70 season which was undoubtedly the best of his career even with the Rose incident.  Even to this day, the 1970 All-Star Game is still the incident that Fosse gets asked about the most.

“It’s constantly brought up,” Fosse said.  “It’s something that’s constantly talked about.  It’s not that I want to be remembered for something, but it’s something that happened in a baseball All-Star Game so it will probably be there for a long, long time.

“I never did (fully recover from the injury).  The fracture and the separation healed, but it healed incorrectly.  There was no setting and there was no time off for it to heal properly.  Right now, when I lift my shoulder I feel it.  It’s never normal.  If I sleep wrong I can really feel it.  It’s bone on bone now.”

Fosse played in Cleveland until being traded to Oakland in March of 1973.  The Athletics were the defending World Champions and were the favorites to win it again when they acquired Fosse.  The difference between the two lineups is what Fosse remembers most.

“In Cleveland I was hitting fourth and catching, but in Oakland I was hitting eighth and catching,” Fosse said with a laugh.  “There was a big difference between the lineups.  They won the World Series in ’72 and with about 10 days to go in Spring Training I was traded to Oakland.”

Despite heading to a much better team across the country, Fosse felt that the trade was quite bittersweet.

“I must emphasize, I NEVER wanted to be traded from Cleveland,” Fosse said.  “I was fortunate, however, to be traded to the A’s and to win a couple of World Championships, but I didn’t want to be traded from Cleveland.  It just so happened.”

The A’s repeated as champions in 1973 and won their third straight title in 1974.  They were the first team to three-peat since the Yankees won five in a row from 1949-53 and were the last team to do so until the Bronx Bombers did it again from 1998-2000.  Fosse was a member of the last two teams in the Oakland trifecta.

“I think it’s tremendous—for someone who didn’t want to be traded from Cleveland—to look where I got traded.  It worked out great,” Fosse said.  “I got a chance to catch a wonderful pitching staff—three 20 game winners that year in Ken Holtzman, Catfish Hunter and Vida Blue as well as Rollie Fingers out of the bullpen.  Great pitching…great offense.  For as powerful as the offense was in ’73, (Manager) Dick Williams said, ‘We pitch and we catch the ball.  We don’t give extra outs.’  I think that’s what helped those teams win the championships.  We had excellent pitching and defense and scored just enough to win.”

After Fosse’s three year run in Oakland, the Indians purchased Fosse from the A’s prior to the 1976 season.  He played another year and one half for the Tribe and then was shipped to Seattle and eventually Milwaukee where he finished his career with the Brewers in 1979.  Despite a chance to return back to the shores of Lake Erie, Fosse’s life was now in Oakland.

“I did end up coming back to Cleveland, but I did keep my home in the Bay Area and we still live out there.”

Along with the great Oakland pitching staff of Holtzman, Hunter, Blue and Fingers, Fosse was also fortunate enough to be the primary backstop for some of Cleveland’s greatest pitchers as well.  Fosse caught games for Tribe legend Sam McDowell, as well as future Hall of Famers Gaylord Perry and Dennis Eckersley as well.  Fosse was behind the plate for Eck’s no-hitter in 1977.  He could see the greatness immediately from the young sidewinder.

“Eckersley’s no hitter, I caught in Cleveland,” Fosse recalled.  “I told Eck during his first season, when we were at the Stadium down in the bullpen, ‘Kid, you’re going to be a 20 game winner with the stuff you have.’  He ended up doing it.

“There was a lot of great pitchers and I was very fortunate to catch those guys.  There were Hall of Famers between Rollie, Eck, Gaylord and Catfish. That’s four Hall of Famers right there…(McDowell) should be in the Hall of Fame (too), he should have been a 300 game winner.  Unfortunately, he had the strikeouts, but he didn’t have the wins…The great thing about all of them was that they all referenced me.  When Gaylord won the Cy Young he said, ‘I could not have done it without my catcher.’  When Catfish won the Cy Young Award he said the same thing.”

With such a great career rotation filled with 20 game winners, Cy Young winners and Hall of Famers, there is one pitcher that stands out for Fosse above the rest.’

“I have always said that if there is one guy to give the baseball to in a big game it would be Catfish Hunter,” Fosse said confidently.  “I think all of the (other guys I caught) would agree as well.  Catfish was the big-game pitcher.  Every time he was there when there was the first game of the playoffs or the World Series…he was always the pitcher and we always got off to a good start.”

Fosse left the game due to injury before the 1980 season, leaving behind an impressive resume despite being the victim of some bad luck.  He finished his career with a .256 batting average, 61 homeruns and 324 RBI.  He won two Gold Gloves, played in two All-Star Games and was a two-time World Champion.  After retiring, it didn’t take Fosse too long to get back into the game he loved.

“When I left the game in Spring Training of 1980, I reinjured my neck—the same injury from ’74—and I dabbled in real estate and did a lot of things just trying to figure out what I was going to do,” Fosse said.  “I had a great opportunity to work in the A’s front office and I started broadcasting in ’86.”

Fosse remains as the voice of the Oakland Athletics to this day and has seen some of the greatest moments and players in A’s history from the broadcast booth.  Among his favorites was a moment that came from his former battery mate in Cleveland.

“To see (Eckersley) and catch him for the no hitter in ’77, and then to broadcast when he got his 300th save and then close to 400 total, it was great for me.”

Fosse was invited back to the lakefront in October of 1993 to help close the doors on Cleveland Municipal Stadium.  This moment stands out for Fosse among the many great memories he has from his time in Cleveland.

“(One of my favorites was) to be invited back in 1993 for the final weekend at Municipal Stadium and to be on the field for the Old Timer’s Game where I got to catch Bob Feller,” Fosse said.  “When we were out on the lines and Bob Hope was singing ‘Thanks for the Memories’.  When they dug up home plate from the old stadium and put it in the limo to bring it to the new stadium, I was at home plate when that happened.  I went back into the clubhouse and I said, ‘Man…this is home.’  So I went and got some dirt from where home plate was and I’m sure that nobody else did that.  So I got a baseball signed by everybody and I’ve got the dirt from the old Municipal Stadium in a case at home, because it was my home for so many years.  People asked, ‘what are you doing?’  I would just reply…this is special.”

Like the moment, Fosse was a special player in Cleveland despite his poor luck.  During the Indians centennial celebration in 2001, Fosse was named as one of the franchise’s 100 greatest players.  He is one of seven catchers to make the list that was selected by a panel of baseball writers, historians and executives.

“It’s been a nice run,” Fosse concluded.  “I don’t know what would have happened if I’d have stayed in Cleveland—if I had not been traded—all I know is that I ended up on the west coast and I’ve been with the A’s for a long time.”

Photo: Topps